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The Sobel Problem Redux: Band of Brothers "Currahee" Round 2

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

To date, three of our posts or articles have generated a lot of negative, um, “feedback” online. The first was our “At War” guest post, “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, which ended up with Richard Dawkins calling Michael C “sanctimonious”. Then came, “I Didn’t Deserve My Combat Pay” on the Washington Post. We responded to the haterz here and here, and were later vindicated when the latest Quadrennial Review of Pay and Benefits quoted my op-ed and backed it up with tons of research.
Finally, we posted “The Sobel Problem” two months ago. And a lot of readers didn’t like it. According to Brandon Friedman, we ignited a “Twitter war” online.

In the post, Eric C (who wrote the post) asserted two points:

1. Hollywood unfairly characterizes lieutenants as incompetent.

2. Officers--even lieutenants--are usually the most qualified people in their units. Eric C used the deliberately provocative phrase, “Officers aren’t just equal to enlisted men. They’re better.”

We knew it would be controversial, but we didn’t respond to the criticism at the time because Michael C decided to attend a wedding in Italy. Today, we respond. We have divided up the responses into three categories: the praise, the nuance and the criticism.

Many of the rebuttals led us to a really...weird place. And an even odder conclusion. But wait a minute for that.

The Praise

1. Everyone agreed with our first thesis.

Mostly, people ignored the first part of our argument that Hollywood unfairly portrays officers (especially lieutenants) as incompetent morons.

The Nuance

Compared to the critiques on Twitter, the excellent, thoughtful comments on the blog post itself really pleased us. Rather than reprint the comments, go take a look for yourself.

We heard two different explanations for why The Neidermeyer stereotype exists. Andrew offered that a bad lieutenant can do a lot more damage than a bad private. He’s absolutely right. Infantrymedic brought up another, more recent phenomena: the rapid progression of lieutenants through the ranks. Often, this means young LTs can expect to have a platoon for less than a year, including combat. This means different leaders train the platoons than the ones who lead them in combat (like myself). He’s right too. I personally hate the Army’s over-drive promotion system.

Infantrymedic also chimed in with this point:

“...you should find a more nuanced way to express your argument than simply saying officers are “better than” or “superior” to enlisted and NCOs. This sort of language seems to imply moral superiority rather than simply acknowledging higher performance.”

And he’s right. It is nearly impossible to quantify moral behavior.

The Criticism

1. Officers and enlisted bring different things to the metaphorical table.

The most frequent critique--leveled by @JeffreyStapler, @wjrue, @JasonFritz, and “mucker” (on the post itself)--isn’t a point we entirely disagree with. However, we hold that in a majority of categories--from physical fitness to leadership--officers would do better than the average enlisted soldier. In fact, our capitalist economic system is based on the principle that the best rise to the top of an organization...but wait a moment on that thought.

Some argued that enlisted men excel more at the so-called “soldiers skills”, while officers excel at leadership and management skills. Then again, in the EIB testing anecdote from last week’s post, officers demolished enlisted men in an infantry skills test.

2. @TyrellMayfield and @Forbesmm pointed out that we only used anecdotes.

We have two thoughts on this. First, yes, we’d have loved to have pored through the Pentagon’s files and analyzed them. They don’t let outsiders do that. And the Army doesn’t do a good job releasing the quantitative analysis they choose to conduct.

More importantly, do either of these guys think that if we ran the results, officers wouldn’t come out better? Choose a category--education, performance in schools, discipline issues, PT scores, etc--and we hold that on average officers and lieutenants would rank higher.

For example, Mike Forbes, referencing a typo we made, snarkily tweeted, “...’Better by every measure’ ... except subject-verb agreement.” to which we would respond, “Do you really think that enlisted men--most of whom haven’t gone to college--are better writers/grammarians than officers who did go to college?

Obviously not.

3. This is classist. So why say it?

We heard two different versions of this argument. Friend of the blog Alex Horton said on Twitter, “I’m of the persuasion of saying, if it’s true, why even say it? It’s classism that provokes said hatred.” And @JasonFritz1 said, “That sort of bulls*** elitism is exactly why officers get a bad rap in the ranks and in movies.” I think that for the most part our soldiers--who have deployed to war zones and back--can handle a frank and honest discussion about the merits of officers, enlisted soldiers and NCOs. In fact, as the U.S. Army shrinks after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it needs to have these conversations.

What is wrong with a frank and open discussion about the abilities of various ranks in the Army? It seems like American pundits (mainly conservative) complain about how: 1. Political correctness runs rampant in society and 2. We raise our children to believe they are all winners when some aren’t. The old “Why do we give every child a trophy?” complaint. Then we compare enlisted soldiers and officers, and suddenly everyone worries about hurting enlisted men/women’s feelings. (Hold on to this thought for a moment as well.)

Which leads into a much more pernicious problem which was another critique of our article...

4. Every soldier is just as good as every other soldier.

We could make a ton of counter-arguments to the above statement, but James Joyner (@drjjoyner) rebutted it in 140 characters:

So, your counter is that there's no real difference between officers and junior enlisted along the lines argued? If there isn't, the entire rank structure should be scrapped.

Our Conclusion?

Obviously, it’s impossible to predict or know the political persuasion of most of our commenters. Same with most of the Twitterzens we don’t read regularly. But if I were to guess, most veterans or current soldiers in the Army are conservative and registered Republican. Poll after Army Times poll confirm this suspicion.

But the response to this article seems...downright liberal. I mean, don’t conservatives usually complain that the current generation of kids, teenagers and college kids are spoiled brats who were told since they were little they would always be winners? Don’t conservatives complain about political correctness? Yet we can’t say that one group in the Army is better than another lest we hurt someone’s feelings? And don’t conservatives value individual achievement over an ethos of “everyone is equal”?

There is no better description for it than the new series we plan to start tomorrow:

Our Communist Military

thirteen comments

As far as hate mail goes, we regularly receive hate mail from Lone Survivor fans too.

Since I’m referenced directly, I’ll answer your two questions: would your conclusion be different if you actually ran the numbers, and are enlisted soldiers better at grammar than officers? Absurdity of the latter aside, the answer to both is the same: ON AVERAGE, probably not.

But I’ll point out here for the record that I freely admitted at the time that my tweets were nitpicky and pedantic, and that I agreed with the point that “officer hate is misplaced.” On the whole, it is.

But I stand by my criticism that your post was anecdotal and not very helpful. It simply asserted a position without backing it up. Your EIB article was much better in that regard, in my opinion.

Also, I think you’re missing the largest source of “officer disdain,” and it isn’t Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood portrays officers in a positive light AT LEAST as often as negatively. Band of Brothers, good officers outnumber the bad. Saving Private Ryan, the CPT is the hero and the enlisted men are variously cowardly and insubordinate. Act of Valor: well, everyone’s a hero, but the LT especially so.

In fact, the source of the Dumb Lieutenant trope is largely the soldiers and NCOs themselves. This is not much different than management-labor relations in the civilian world (see: every Dilbert cartoon ever). It’s also used as a myth of the military sub-culture; a way to test the new guys to see how they handle themselves in the face of some (mostly) good-natured ribbing. It also doesn’t help that when the trope IS true, holy shit, is it ever true. And visible to everyone. And so the cycle continues.

Wait, so just to reiterate, on the grammar point, do you really think Officers and enlisted soldiers are, on average, equally proficient in grammar?

@forbesmm – First, I love you comment here way more than twitter. I think Twitter—due to its 140 limit—makes every comment seem either sarcastic, mocking or both. I think well run comment sections further the debate more.

On to your points. I think their should realistically be three categories here: officers, NCOs and enlisted. And even those groups could be broken down into senior vs junior, or by rank period.

You do hit the nail on the head about management vs labor. Eric C has written about that before in respect to memoirs, where every LT hates his captain boss for the most part. People (Americans?) just don’t like bosses. Though I disagree, I think Hollywood perpetuates the bad officer stereotype.

I’ll let Eric C handle the grammar issue specifically, but thanks for commenting directly.

Eric and Michael, DoD has produced some data which supports the point that officers will have superior all-around performance than enlisted. The study in question found that AFQT scoring category was one of the most predictive variables for performance, in both technical and combat jobs. As officers are required to have high GT scores and thus high AFQT scores, they possess a cognitive advantage over many enlisted that would express itself in officers’ mastery of their “warrior tasks and drills.”

Of course, plenty of sharp guys choose to enlist, but we must remember that, on this issue, the average is what matters.

I cannot seem to track down the original publication online, but the important bit can be found here (http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG265/images/webS0838.pdf), under the “Aptitude Matters” section.

I’ve been on both sides of this fence as an enlisted man in the Army and now as an officer in the Air Force. I’ve always worked hard to “out soldier” everyone.. enlisted and officer alike. I think your EIB example is interesting and if you stop and think about it, also not surprising.

Twitter is probably not the best platform to critique an argument so I’ll take credit/blame for RTing @forbesmm.

Enjoy the blog, glad you addressed the comments and even happier that I was following @forbesmm so I could check this out and see that I had been mentioned by name as well!

Great work. Keep it up.

@Eric C: I thought my 1st paragraph was pretty clear on that point: it’s a silly question; and ON AVERAGE, as a data-free intuitive guess, no, a HS grad will not be equally proficient in grammar and writing to a university grad. Exceptions to the average abound.

@Michael C: To be fair, my tweets In response to the first article WERE intended to be sarcastic and mocking, 140 character limit or no. Agree that Twitter isn’t the best medium to convey nuance in an argument.

Ultimately, I think your point is generally correct but uninteresting. The distinction has less to do with rank—officer vs. enlisted—and more to do with age, education, experience, training, maturity, and expectations. So you’re saying that someone who is older, has more formal education, longer training, and is placed in a position of responsibility generally outperforms someone who is younger, less formally educated, whose military training is shorter, and has much less responsibility? OK then. But I think if you compare more equivalent populations with respect to those factors (O1/O2 to E6/E7, etc), you’d see the gap in the averages close up considerably.

I came back to this and have another observation that I’d like to add to the conversation.

First to answer your question: I will agree that in general officers are going to outperform enlisted troopers in the categories of education, performance in schools, education, PT etc. This is not to say that it is categorical and it is important to remember that there are shitty officers too. I helped discharge 3/9 of my Lts in a single year while I was in Korea. I have never been so frustrated in my professional life. Discipline, integrity, performance, PT were all contributing factors to their downfall.

But to the reasons why I think officers are going to outperform enlisted guys in most categories—it comes down to education. It’s that simple and if the military could sort out the difference between education and training, we could close this gap and not have to wasted terabytes of type this conversation.

TRAINING: training is a function of wrote memory and muscles conditioning. It simply teaches you what to do when given a basic stimulus. It is at best, Pavlovian. Take the gas mask for instance. When you hear “gas, gas, gas!”. Everybody knows what to do. Don and clear your gas masks and repeat the warning.

EDUCATION: Education provides background information that enables those with more of it to make better decisions. It’s about problem solving. So you read and analyze case studies, history, theory etc and then when you’re faced with a new problem you have a set of “experience” albeit not your own to draw on and help you deduce the best course of action. Education helps you solve problems faster and more accurately. And what is military life if not one huge problem solving exercise?

Training teaches you what to do and when to do it. Education provides you the tools to solve problems that you’ve never encountered before. There is a difference.

I think the military is too focused on training and as a results is slow to innovate. This is why we are still trying to figure out how to win in Afghanistan. Too much training—not enough education.

(***disclaimer: I wrote this on an ipad without being properly caffeinated. Any typos or in-congruency in my subjects and verbs are my fault alone)

@ both Tyrell and Forbesmm — I don’t think we are too far off. The main focus in Eric C’s article wasn’t that officers were better than enlisted (though he made that point), his main point was that the reputation of officers, especially junior officers, in undeserved. I feel like most people tend to generally agree with that point.

As Duck observed, this doesn’t mean there are great enlisted men or terrible officers. He was talking about the average.

Thanks for the comments.

First off, great post on a fascinating subject! It’s one that I’ve given much thought and observation to over the years. I spent nine years as an Army combat arms officer, starting in the active force and ending in the National Guard with an Iraq deployment thrown in for good measure. The following observations refer to active Army combat leaders. The National Guard is an entirely different animal.
It seems to me that lieutenants perform at such high levels (physical, technical, mental, ethical) because they have to. Their commanders expect it and so do the men they lead. It’s a cornerstone of the ancient warrior ethos. As the old adage goes, ‘You can’t lead from the rear.’ The Army is not an aristocracy. It’s a meritocracy. Rank and personal respect are earned, not given. As such, a lieutenant is not an aristocrat. He’s a warrior leader. The alpha male. Anybody about to lead a gang of hot blooded meat eating trigger pullers into combat better understand that. An LT that falls out of a run, fails to qualify on the rifle range, gets a DUI, or goes down as heat casualty is perceived as weak and usually relieved on the spot. Oh, by the way, good enough simply isn’t good enough. You better at or near the top. If you aren’t, neither your men nor your commander will respect you. And that’s before you even get to the officer stuff you gotta do. No excuses. No slack. It’s a pressure cooker. It’s hard as hell. And it makes for a damn fine officer corp. The same is true of junior NCOs. While he may not beat the LT, that buck sergeant better be able to outrun, outmarch, and outshoot his men. Fear of failure is a great motivator. Imagine being tossed into a platoon where everybody has more time in the chow line than you have in uniform with the punch line, ‘You’re in charge, o’ green and clueless one.’ No time to ease into the role. It’s sink or swim. All will step on their cranks at some point, but the smart ones learn from their mistakes. Some fail, but most find their way. The bad ones stick out like sore thumbs and cause hardship for their men. The good ones forge on, do their best, and make their men proud.
There’s another part of the warrior ethos that is almost universally ignored by popular media. It’s the concept of putting the troops first. A warrior leader at any level eats last, sleeps least, and takes all the blame. Field Marshal Sir William Slim put it best when he said to his subordinates, “I tell you, as officers, that you will not eat, sleep, smoke, sit down or lie down until your soldiers have had a chance to do these things. If you do this, they will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you do not, I will break you in front of your regiments.” The U.S. Army sums this up in four words: Mission first. People always.
The movie (and the book) We Were Soldiers gets it right. For brevity’s sake (too late), I’ll just say that the Sobelesque LT was the minority just as in actual units. I try to reflect such truth in my own writing.
As to why does the media portrays officers with such disdain…When do they ever show leaders differently? You name it – police chiefs, fire chiefs, CEOs, politicians, even fathers. All are portrayed as incompetent, corrupt, or both. I suppose they think it makes for better storytelling. The groupthink is that good guys & boy scouts are boring. Even superheroes are pretty screwed up lately. They all have to have a dark side or be deeply troubled. The last one I can think of that didn’t have some serious mental issues was Christopher Reeves’ Superman in 1978.
The lead by example mentality is what sets our military apart. A platoon leader’s job is tough. A company commander’s is even tougher. The crucible of platoon leadership separates the studs from the duds and makes for tough, demanding, competent, and uncompromising senior officers. Sure, there are exceptions and even the good ones screw up. But I’ve worked in many arenas with all kinds of people. And the officers, NCOs, and enlisted soldiers in the Army remain the finest I’ve ever met. I count it as an honor to have served in such fine company.

RA, one caution on the “Mission First, People Always”, those two values do conflict. To accomplish some missions will sometimes mean the sacrifice of hundreds or thousands of soldiers. Some leaders of our country and military misinterpret “people first” to mean “no casualties”, and they aren’t synonomous.

Michael, point well taken.

Perhaps the stereotype goes back to WWII for a reason, that being that American 2nd LTs were not very good, especially when compared with German LTs. This then carried on thru popular culture for generations if only because there were so many WWII guys

The best story I know to illustrate this is something Bill Mauldin wrote in The Brass Ring. They learned of an incident where a wounded German LT was captured along with an unwounded German medic who had stayed behind to take care of him. Mauldin and his mates were amazed that the medic would stay behind because being taken prisoner as the front line troops were moving through was such an uncertainty no matter how high you held up your hands. Then they got to talking about whether they would take such a chance for any of the officers they knew. One said “Sure, I’d do that for COL Such&Such.” Then another guy said “Yeah, are there any LTs you’d do it for?” That was followed by silence.

I am pretty sure the Army recognized this but I can’t think of any refs offhand. Mauldin’s story gets the point across better anyway.